Below is a paper by modern Irish archaeologist Peter Harbinson on the monastery of Durrow, which I first posted in 2010 on Under the Oak. The original link no longer seems to be working, so I regret it is not possible to view the illustrations.
Durrow - Monasterium Nobile
The recent acquisition by the State of Durrow Abbey and demesne in County Offaly prompts Peter Harbison to reassess its cultural significance
A year and a half ago, the State made one of its most important heritage acquisitions in buying Durrow Abbey and thirty-one hectares of land that went with it. This is a fine demesne located just west of the N52 between Kilbeggan and Tullamore and on it is one of the most significant, virtually undisturbed, monasteries of ancient Ireland, founded by one of the country’s three national Apostles, St Colmcille (or Columba), who lived from 521 to 597.
Its takes its name from the Irish Dearmach, or ‘plain of oaks’, a tree also associated with another of Colmcille’s foundations where the city of Derry now stands. It is appropriate, therefore, that the modern estate should have been enclosed on three sides by oak trees of which those on the northern boundary of the estate are the most notable remnants. Interspersed with beech there, along a ridge clearly seen in the aerial photograph (Fig 4), they mark out the Eiscir Riada, ancient Ireland’s most important east-west roadway which wiggles its way westwards above the surrounding countryside like a sleeping reptile that St Patrick had failed to banish. It crossed the Shannon at Clonmacnois, a slightly older monastery which Colmcille is known to have visited – though it should be said that we do not have a precise date for the foundation of the monastery at Durrow. But its proximity to this vital traffic artery explains why Colmcille chose the site, which had been given to him by a local king.
Colmcille was one of the most human and charismatic of early Irish saints whose career was described for us in two biographies written more than 850 years apart – one by Adomnán, a late 7th-century abbot of Iona (see the Irish Arts Review Autumn 2004), and the other by his kinsman Manus O’Donnell, whose monograph of 1532 managed to assemble a vast amount of lore that had accumulated around Colmcille down the centuries. From these two sources, we know that Colmcille was born into the kingly O’Donnell family of Donegal and he would doubtless have become ruler of much territory in the north-west of Ireland had not the church claimed his attention at an early stage of his life. He went to learn at the foot of St Finnian, whose foundation at Clonard in County Meath was the nursery par excellence for early Irish monastic founders and who must have inspired Colmcille to go out and make new foundations himself, not just Derry and Durrow, but at other places which bear his name, such as Swords in Fingal – Sórd Cholaim Chille. His name is also revered in that lovely valley of Glencolumbkille in Donegal where the pattern (Patrún) that takes place annually must be one of the oldest and most genuine of its kind in the country. It is held on the saint’s feast-day, 9 June, the same day as the pilgrimage to St Colmcille’s Well in the grounds of Durrow Abbey.
When over forty, Colmcille decided – for whatever reason – to leave his native land and venture as a pilgrim across the sea to the beatific island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides where he made his most famous foundation in 563. There he remained for the rest of his life, when not occasionally returning to Ireland, or crossing to mainland Scotland to preach among the Picts under their king Brude.
Colmcille was not only a charismatic teacher and leader, he was also a diplomat and poet – talents which led to his successful intervention in one of the most momentous cultural disputes in the long history of Ireland – the Convention of Druim Ceat in 575. This was the culmination of a controversy between the high king and the poets of Ireland whom he wanted to banish abroad because they were charging too much for their praise poetry. But Colmcille won the day by hammering out a compromise whereby the king allowed the poets to remain in the country, and the poets agreed to accept smaller fees. At one fell stroke, Colmcille had saved Ireland’s literary heritage.
We also owe Colmcille a great debt in a similar sphere. He was a man who was known to have loved books and, without him and the monasteries he created, we would not have three of the great manuscripts which this country possesses, the Cathach in the Royal Irish Academy (which tradition ascribes to his very own hand) and the two great codices in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin – the Book of Kells and, what is more relevant to our theme here, the Book of Durrow.
The Book of Durrow, which comes in date between the other two, was written some time around or before 700 AD and, although the location of its scriptorium has never been discovered, it has been associated with our Offaly monastery since the days when Flann Sinna, king of Ireland from 877 to 916, made a cumdach or cover for it, which was adorned with a silver cross, as noted in a 17th-century addition to the manuscript. Whether the book was made in Durrow, or on Iona (where Colmcille died about a century before it was created), or even in Northumbria, is a question which has given countless scholars the opportunity to disagree heartily with one another for over a century. Yet it could have remained in Durrow for up to 800 years or more before it was removed around 1689. What we can say for sure, however, is that the book is one of the most important artistic documents of its period anywhere in Europe – and a masterpiece of Celtic craftsmanship.
It is written in a wonderfully clean Irish majuscule script, and represents one of the few surviving stages in the gradual development of ‘insular’ manuscript illumination that culminated a century later in the Book of Kells. It is noteworthy for being one of the earliest known manuscripts to devote a full page solely to ornamentation, as seen brilliantly in folio 3v where a framework of interlacing circular knotwork encloses groups of spirals within spirals which swirl around as in a dance, touching, then retreating from one another and finally regrouping in enchanting choreography. The symbol of the evangelist Matthew (the only human figure in the whole manuscript) is more static in a similar interlaced frame, his poncho-like garment resembling a chess-board, suggesting that the monk who illuminated the page was probably borrowing ideas from the metalworker in the workshop next door. The other evangelist symbols are unusual in giving the calf to Mark and the lion to Luke (rather than the other way round), and the perky eagle of St John looks as if it may have been inspired by some continental metalwork brooch. Equally exotic in a Celtic context are the Germanic animals which bite and intertwine with one another in the full page of ornament preceding the text of St Luke’s Gospel.
But one page which can be selected to illustrate for us the clever symbiosis of ornament and text is the introduction to St Mark’s Gospel (Fig 5). Here we can see the very first word in Latin – INITIUM, or ‘beginning’ – being stepped back in diminuendo as it follows the direction of the script from left to right, and demonstrating a dazzling combination of spirals and interlace woven into the first vertical stroke of the I which could be taken to double for the first downstroke of the following N. This is succeeded by a much smaller I and the final TIUM before the lettering gradually settles down to a more regular and reduced rhythm. What may seem at first like a jumble of irregular spiral twists in the diagonal of the N is, in fact, a tightly-controlled study in asymmetry – one of those lovable characteristics of the ‘Celtic’ artist which marks him out as so different from the conventionally regular art of ancient Rome. One cannot escape the stylised gaze of the birdheads blossoming out into a capital on the top of the right-hand vertical of the letter N, or the feeling that the spirals at the very bottom of the decoration represent an equally stylised animal head seen from the front. This is just the kind of abstraction that we find in prehistoric Celtic metalwork and, in fact, the spirals seen so clearly in the Book of Durrow are wonderful examples of how the Christian monks were able to turn old pagan motifs to their own purposes, and imbue them with new meaning.
It was probably not long after the creation of the book that the most eminent church historian of the English people, the Venerable Bede, described Durrow as a monasterium nobile, a famous monastery, which it had obviously already become when he was writing in the early 8th century. By that time, the church had already integrated well with Irish lay society and the monasteries that had grown up like daisies across the green fields of Ireland had developed into large settlements, made up of wooden buildings which have long since disappeared. The extent of the ancient monastery at Durrow should not be judged by what we take today as its core – the church and churchyard. Aerial photography (such as Fig 4) and geophysical surveys suggest that it extended well out into the field to the south of the avenue, where traces of two circular banks and a ditch have been found. But expansion of the monastery led to laxity, and size to greed for others’ possessions, and it is no surprise, therefore, to find the monastery at war with Clonmacnois in the year 764, when 200 Durrow men died.
But this animosity had obviously calmed down over a century later when both monasteries erected stone high crosses which share a similar iconography on one of their faces, suggesting a certain amount of common planning and craftsmanship. The high cross at Durrow (Figs 1, 2 &6), which has now been moved into the church for protection and eventual display is one of the dozen or so most important scriptural crosses surviving in Ireland. It bears inscriptions so tantalisingly incomplete that it is difficult to identify the names in them, but one may be that of Maelsechlainn, the High King of Ireland (846-862) and father of the Flann Sinna who made the cover for the Book of Durrow. The fact that this potentially regal inscription is on the narrow side of the cross rather than on the main face may mean that Maelsechlainn is being commemorated after his death, rather than proclaiming himself as king of Ireland – and presumably benefactor of the cross – as he did on another cross not far away at Castlebernard near Kinnitty. The west face of the cross – which is the one so like that on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois – has scenes of Christ’s Passion on the shaft, and a touching Crucifixion scene above it (Fig 1). The head of the other face (Fig 2) has a version of the Last Judgment, beneath which, on the shaft, we find Christ flanked by apostles and, contrastingly, the Sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis. Further Old Testament scenes are found on the south side just around the corner – Adam and Eve and their offspring Cain and Abel, as well as a proud King David. On the north side we have, not the Holy Family, but almost certainly John the Baptist with his parents. The head of a smaller (and probably marginally earlier) cross is now in the National Museum in Dublin. Durrow also has a small but significant collection of grave-slabs (Fig 7), including one that is among the largest of its kind (Fig 3), and which was discovered by Liam de Paor just over fifty years ago lying flat in the ground just to the east of the high cross. Its inscription, like those on the high cross, is fragmentary, so that it is impossible to relate it to any known historical personage.
The second millennium saw a down-turn in the monastery’s luck; its church was broken into in 1019, and its books – fortunately, not our book –were burned in 1095. In the following century things got better before they got worse again. The life of the old monastery must have been flagging after half a millennium of existence, and it was given a new and reformed lease of life by the arrival of the Arrouaisian (or Augustinian) Canons who opened a house close to the old monastery which may have been for both monks and nuns. Although the monastery must have been enriched in the 12th century by the acquisition of a metal crozier now in the National Museum, this did not prevent one fire in 1153 and two more in 1155. A greater threat was posed by the descent of the Normans who laid waste the monastery and surrounding lands in 1175, within less than a decade of their arrival in the country. However retribution was on its way. The great Norman baron Hugh de Lacy had taken over the monastic lands and began to build a castle there, which can probably be identified with the motte to the south of the house now known as Durrow Abbey. But while he was surveying his handiwork, a ‘youth of Meath’ produced an axe from under his cloak and slew the baron ‘in reparation to St. Colmcille, in whose church of Durrow the castle was being built’. Norman retaliation was doubtless hard and swift and is likely to have heralded the end of the ancient monastery. But the Canons remained on without any happenings as dramatic as Hugh de Lacy’s murder to make it into the history books.
The new visitor facilities, planned for completion at the end of next year, will bring the history and heritage of this important monastery to the attention of an international public, who deserve to know about it in order to appreciate fully the treasures of this midland gem.
Peter Harbison is the Honorary Academic Editor of the Royal Irish Academy.
All photography (with the exception of Fig 5) courtesy of The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government